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Why your 21st-century software has to be fluent in Emoji

After discussing different writing systems across the world, in this article, we turn our eyes to emojis. Called digital hieroglyphs, Emojis are considered the new universal and the first truly digital language. One thing is for sure – they are here to stay. Find out how they are shaping the digital industry.

Origins of the Emoji

Before emojis, there were Emoticons. The familiar “:)” and “:(” was first used at Carnegie Mellon University in 1982. Their purpose was to show the writers’ mood on the University’s computer message boards and so avoid misunderstandings. Almost 2 decades later, Japan gave the world emojis.

The word emoji comes from Japanese “e” for picture and “moji” which means letter. Emojis are the real-life example that a picture is worth more than a thousand words.

The Japanese artist Shigetaka Kurita created the first emojis in 1999 for DoCoMo, a Japanese mobile carrier. The idea was to have a pictorial, alternative grid similar to a keyboard. This “keyboard” had pixel images instead of letters, thus allowing users to share basic ideas in a quick and easy way. The first emojis displayed everyday topics like the weather, food, or to indicate facial expressions. No one could imagine what that 12×12 pixel grid will mean for the future of digital communication.

Following DoCoMo’s move, other Japanese mobile carriers decided to pick up the emoji craze. Soon after, all large mobile carriers had their own emoji bundles. This is where the first “translation” problems with emojis arose. Firstly, there was no unified “dictionary” for emojis. Misunderstanding between devices and mobile carriers were common, and yet the popularity of emojis only grew.

Evolution of Emoji

It didn’t take too long before emojis were under the international spotlight. It was a matter of time before the rest of the world followed Asia’s emoji trend.

With that in mind, Google’s software internationalization team petitioned the Unicode Consortium to recognize emojis in 2007. The Unicode accepted the proposal three years later. This move cemented emojis as an official digital format for communication.

In 2011, Apple added an official emoji keyboard to iOS and Android did the same in 2013. This allowed users to switch between alphabet keyboard to emojis, just like with any other language.

Furthermore, the first ever World Emoji day took place on July 17th back in 2014. The same year, a discussion on inclusivity of the emoji language started. The limited number of emoji characters that did not represent enough of its “speakers”. Emojis are a communication tool worldwide, obviously – it was time for changes.

New era of Emoji

This emoji-inclusiveness conversation waried from skin color, gender representation, food diversity. In 2015, Apple introduced the different skin color option, marking an important milestone. The following two years would also see growing number of recognized additions to the “emoji alphabet”.

In 2015, the “Face with tears of Joy” emoji was named the word of the year by the Oxford dictionary. This level of recognition for emojis added flame to the discourse. This question was – are emojis the new universal and the very first digital language? What does this mean for the future of digital communication?

The following year (2016), Emojis hit another important cultural milestone. New York’s Museum of Modern Art organized an exhibition with the original set of 176 emojis.

We are witnessing the evolution of emojis as a digital language. This year, Unicode approved more than 200 new emojis, providing more representation for emoji-speakers. Our universal, digital language is quickly trying to catch up with the multitude of its speakers.

Emojis across different cultures

The digital culture is perhaps the most diverse of all. The sheer number of internet users, the multitude users’ backgrounds, beliefs and preferences make it an unpredictable cluster. With that in mind, emojis as its inherent native language have to evolve faster than any language before.

Emojis might be universally used, but are they universally understood? A study done by SwiftKey back in 2015, showed there is a significant difference between countries and the emojis they use the most. So, while French speakers might use the heart emoji more than any other, Americans use LGBT emojis 30% more than the average.  

Infographic: What Words Won't Say ¯\_(ツ)_/ ¯   | Statista You will find more infographics at Statista

In addition, speakers of different languages tend to interpret the same emoji differently which can lead to misunderstandings or misinterpretation. For example, the connected hands emoji is a subject of frequent misinterpretation. It is widely used with a religious type of content (#blessed, #prayers, etc) or as a high five symbol. The original Japanese meaning, however, of this emoji is “thank you” or “arigatou“.

Finnish government smartly capitalized on this by becoming the first government who released their own set of emojis back in 2015.

The interpretation of emojis depends greatly on common ideas, stereotypes, and even pop culture. This is what makes them universal and, at the same time, tricky.
If that isn’t enough, the display of emojis can vary greatly depending on the device or platform of the users, which further creates possibilities for misunderstanding.

Translating and localizing emojis

Emojis are here to stay, and the industry knows it. In fact, a recent study shows that our brains have already accustomed to emotionally reacting to emojis. This study indicates that our digital culture created a neural response where, for example we react to the 🙂 emoji in a similar way we would if we actually saw the face of the speaker.

The DeepMoji algorithm, conveniently, predicts emoji usage and can recognize sarcasm and hate speech. Consequently, user behavior is better recognized and potential customers are targeted online.

It’s no wonder that marketing professionals targeting younger generations are focusing on emoji use in their campaigns. However, it doesn’t always go the right way.

Emoji localization done right

When emoji translation and localization go well – they can go extremely well. For example, Japanese company LINE generates a significant revenue just by localizing and selling emojis.

The ingenuity of LINE’s business model is incredible. Aside from offering the option to integrate their emojis into other social apps instead of appropriating it just for their own. As a result, LINE has an extended audience. In the Italian version, LINE characters adopt stereotypically Italian gestures which makes them uniquely relatable for Italian speakers.

Emoji translation and localization aren’t exclusively a thing of social media. The first emoji translation of literary works has already been done by Fred Benenson. He took on the challenge of editing and compiling Herman Melville’s Moby Dick to the elusive language of emoji.

Emoji and controversy

Trends in emojis can change considerably faster and require a pulse of the culture aside from in-depth knowledge of cultural norms. For example, USA users frequently use LGBT emojis. However, in Russia, they led to an investigation of Apple in accordance with Russicontroversial anti-homosexuality laws.

Although tools like Emojipedia, Emojidictionary, and EmojiTranslate help, they are not always enough.

Here’s a short list of potential disasters of poor emoji localization (emojis provided by Emojipedia):

🤘 

Can be considered offensive in Greece, Italy, Portugal, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina since it indicates that the person was cheated on by their partner.

👋 On China’s WeChat app is used to signify an ending of a friendship.
👍 In Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan is considered an obscene gesture.
👌 In Brazil and Turkey can be considered as an insult.
🍆 In Japan, it is considered that dreaming of eggplant on the first night of the New Year means good fortune. In western countries like the USA, it has a strong sexual connotation.

Emojis and the future of the industry

Emoji translators and interpreters are already making strides in the world of localization and translation. If you are a developer considering to include emojis in your app, you can’t afford not to be sure that your emojis of choice will be well received by the target audience.